The illusion of control and choice (#nofreewill)…

Following on from my last entry – I wanted to explore more on the topic of unconscious versus conscious choice, and our ability to make conscious choices versus our perception of that ability. Let’s see what we can come up with.

For the majority of our experiences, what we feel about our interactions with the world is massively out of step with what’s actually going on. As we talked about last time, most of our actions are actually guided by automatic systems, without any real conscious override or control. Nevertheless, we ascribe conscious control (or choice) to these actions post hoc, assuming that if we did it we must have been in control, by creating a fake narrative (rationalisation) that backs up the assumption. We go to great lengths to maintain this fiction; even when we’re caught out and questioned about our actions, we’ll usually make up some sort of reason that we’re perfectly happy to believe, but that is actually 100% BS.

In other words, most of what you (and I) think, feel, say, and do, aren’t generated by you (or me). They are actually the result of automated, nonconscious systems, the majority of which evolved for the purpose of keeping you alive in dangerous situations. They act independently of conscious control for several reasons. First, there’s no need for consciousness to get involved in a lot of survival decisions; consciousness is slow and neurologically expensive to run (both potential problems for short-term survival which relies on fast, efficient processing). Second, whilst consciousness can get hung up on the “right” decision, when it comes to survival a “good enough” approach is good enough. These heuristical approaches work well enough in the short term (it’s better to make minor errors than to die trying to figure out a plan) – consciousness can then kick in and analyse the outcome (once we’re safe). For modern humans who retain the same brains as our ancestors, these processes still occur for most our experiences. Just because our environment has changed doesn’t mean that the system acts differently.

So, if most of our actions really are guided by automatic systems, why are we so desperate to create a narrative of personal control? Why do we insist that we’re in control of the automatic systems, when they’re actually in control of us? There are probably several reasons – let’s take a look at the candidates.

First up, we all suffer from what psychologists like to call the “integrated-self illusion”. For you (and me), it feels like there’s just “you” in your head. Put another way, when you have a thought, a feeling, or a sensation, or when you find yourself acting in a particular way, our natural assumption is that we generated that thought, feeling, or action. We say things like “I think that” or “I feel that”. We then follow up with narratives like “when she said X, and I felt Y, I chose to say Z”. But in reality it’s more like “when she said X, several automatic systems interpreted the incoming information and responded with output Y, resulting in action Z (which I had nothing to do with)”. So, despite the fact that we have little or no agency over the majority of our brain activity, we simply assume that we do – meaning that it never occurs to us to question this assumption.

Following on from the integrated-self illusion, is our inherent need to ascribe a conscious motive to our actions, even though unconscious systems provide the impetus for most of our behaviours. Like you, I want to know why I do things, especially those things that I’m driven to. Humans feel a deep need to ascribe meaning both to the world and to their interactions with it. Why, for example, do I choose to mountain bike? Is it because of my supposedly deeply human “values” like challenge and mastery (read here), or is it because of primitive drives (run by automatic systems) to attract a mate through competition with other males? I’d like to think that it’s the former, but I’ll probably never really know. Either way, humans love to ascribe a conscious, noble narrative to drives that are probably much more base (a huge factor in religion – read here and here).

When we ascribe meaning to action it makes us feel better. The belief that we were the agents of choice and change increases our perception of freedom (and vice versa). We feel so much better when we believe that we have the ability to choose (emphasis on belief – remember that belief has no relationship whatsoever to reality). Unfortunately, our desire to believe makes us terribly easy to manipulate. If we encourage the belief that a person chose a particular stance, made a certain decision, or took a certain action of their own volition, that person will experience increased feelings of control (despite having no actual control). This makes us feel comfortable and safe.

We interact with social media largely because it makes us feel good (feedback loops – read here) when people “like” our posts. In doing so, we voluntarily give huge amounts of information to predictive algorithms. There’s increasing evidence that this information can be used to predict our behaviour with scary accuracy. With as little as several hundred Facebook “likes”, these systems can predict your behaviour substantially better than you, your best friend, or even your spouse can. With several thousand points of data, we’re close to 100% predictable – no matter how special, unique, or random we like to believe we are. This also makes it disturbingly easy to manipulate our behaviour, by feeding us with the information that we prefer and rewarding certain types of resultant actions that correspond with the desired outcome. Remember that your preferences aren’t really yours, they’re the result of automatic systems – but because of your personalised narrative of control, you’ll assume that you chose to like something, and that any subsequent actions were your considered choice.

This belief that we’re in control makes us a type of philosophical zombie. Our shambling zombie unconscious makes us all scarily similar: eating, shitting, procreating machines, which default to short-term survival over long-term analysis. This means that free will is probably an illusion, and that it’s unlikely that we can ever truly be in control of our actions. There is some good news in this morass of meaninglessness, however. We can, at least, develop some awareness of the automatic systems, even if we can’t control them. In other words, we can learn “meta-awareness”: the ability to observe both our internal qualia and our external actions. In doing so, we can learn to (potentially) intervene, both in some of our decision making, and in our resultant actions.

Learning meta-awareness requires cultivating the ability to question deeply our beliefs, motives, feelings, and cognitions, especially when they “feel right” (read here). This will be hard, because we all feel special and individual. Worse, the system doesn’t want your input – it’s just so much easier to go with what we feel and think, and to make up nice stories to convince ourselves that we’re real and that we matter.

Of course, you can’t necessarily consciously override every action – to do so would be pointless and overwhelming, principally when your automatic systems are actually quite good at getting on with most of your daily tasks without any input from you. But some of your decisions and actions really should require human control. The choices that matter will require careful thought, exposure to a wide variety of information, and the carefully trained ability to evaluate that information despite your myriad cognitive biases. This is really hard, and (unsurprisingly but ironically) it requires conscious choice (over and over again, in the presence of the tempting automatic systems, which are more than happy to take over with their mostly “good enough” heuristics).

So, will you surrender to the default meat-puppet state, giving rein to the systems that result in your knee-jerk emotional reactions? Or do you cultivate your consciousness (consciousness is probably best conceptualised as “the part of your brain that you live in, and the only bit that can actually contemplate action and question motive”)? Will you trust the survival systems (i.e., automatic survival zombies), or the part of your brain that is human?

Each day, ask yourself the most important question you’ll ever ask: “am I human, or am I zombie?”

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